We just returned from a week in northern Italy (all spend outside of the major cities) the higlights of which nearly all were in the chowhounding in and around Alba, in the Piemonte region. We had made evening reservations at two of our favorites, Da Guido in Costigliole d'Asti and La Ciau del Tornavento in Treiso, as well as at Il Vicoletto in Alba proper. Guido, for those who do not know it, still sets the standard for the traditional cooking of the region (exquisite antipasti like vitello tonnato and send me pastas such as their homemade agnolotti, showered at this time of year in shaved white truffles), together with one of the truly great wine cellars in the region -- at miniscule prices. Il Vicolleto also was successful. Again the food was grounded in regional specialties and products and the service was excellent. We were disappointed with the food at La Ciau, as they forced us to choose from one of two set menus (apparently this was done in order to deal with the full dining room occasioned by truffle season), but would not dissuade others to try when the traffic is lighter (they may make the best risotto we have ever had).
The highlights of the trip, however, were our lunches in several smaller restaurants, chosen largely on the spur of the moment, after consulting with the Michelin Guide and the Italian Gambero Rosso guide.
Our first lunch was at San Marco in Canelli, west of Asti. This is a charming one star Michelin restaurant, with a combination of wonderful regional specialties and a sophisticated service. We had a torta made with fonduta, two beautiful plates of tagliatelli, sauced with sage and butter and blessed with white truffles and then main courses of roast baby goat and veal braised in Barolo wine.
The second day we tried Trattoria della Posta near Monforte d'Alba. This is another of the many family owned and operated restaurants in the area. Among the highlights of our meal were tagliatelli sauced in several different ways (rabbit raggu, a spicy tomato sauce and simply with butter and sage), a marvelous ravioli filed with squash, baby quail stuffed with mushrooms and fried fresh porchini. We were thrilled with a Dolcetto d'Alba from a vinyard just next door.
Day three took us to lunch at Il Centro in the town of Priocca, near Alba. This family owned trattoria qualified as best of all our meals. As is often the case in Piemonte and elsewhere outside of Italy' major cities, the husband runs dining room here and his wife cooks. In this case, the recipes apparently have been in the family for generations were made famous in the region by the owner's mother, who formerly occuppied the kitchen, and in her dotage runs the wine store across the street (also worth a visit).
We started with a series of three antipasti: a warm salad of wild rabbit marinated in a basalmic vinegar, a fritter filled with a blend of diced artichokes and plate of extraordinary grilled porcini with fonduta. Pastas included fabulous agnotti, ravioli stuffed with fonduta and again wonderful tagliatelli sauced with rabbit. Two of us made it to the main course -- grilled rabbit liver (better than one might think!)with a perfect salad. Again the wines were stupendous, especially a Barbera d'Alba from the immediate area.
Suffice to say, we have come to believe that some the very best food in Italy hails from this region. Hope that it remains relatively secret, except for Chowhounds.
P.S. Other notable meals were had at Il Griso in Malgrate on Lake Como and at Del Sole in Ranco on Lake Maggiore.